On April 9 nearly 70 years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed in a Nazi prison in Flossenberg, Germany. Known best for his book “The Cost of Discipleship” -- a treatise on the Sermon on the Mount -- Bonhoeffer’s real significance to the church rests in his resistance to the rise of National Socialism in Germany in the 1930s.
It was a chaotic time for Christians. Germany had lost the First World War. Disillusionment combined with difficult economic times created a fertile field for the rise of National Socialists -- the Nazis. In a closely fought election filled with political intrigue, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of the German government in 1933.
No time wasted
Only two days after Hitler came to power, Bonhoeffer delivered a radio address critical of the Nazi Party. He characterized the party as a “cult” and warned the German people that following the line of National Socialism would eventually lead to an end of religious freedom. Hitler wanted the churches for his own purposes, but God and Caesar cannot share the same stage.
Bonhoeffer called on the churches in Germany to stand with the Jews who were being herded into ghettos. In the infamous “Kristallnacht” -- the night of broken glass -- homes and worship places of Jews were vandalized. Bonhoeffer exhorted German Christians to break their silence about this atrocity and stand with the Jews against the tyranny and violence of the Nazi party.
“If the synagogues are set on fire today,” Bonhoeffer warned, “It will be churches that will be burned tomorrow.”
Among the more problematic elements of Bonhoeffer’s life was his decision to join in a plot to assassinate Hitler. The plan failed and Bonhoeffer was imprisoned. He later wrote about his decision to participate in this act of political violence:
“If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can’t simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”
It is here, at the nexus of the real politics of oppression and the ideal ethics of nonviolence, that faith is tested by fire. Most people, as the book of Hebrews puts it, are never “tested unto blood.” But Bonhoeffer, along with many others among the faithful in Germany in the 1930s, were sorely tested.
Impact of decision
Bonhoeffer’s decision to find justification for political violence against a cruel oppressor has provided solace for other faith-based revolutionary groups and their use of violence, but even he acknowledged with great reluctance the resort to violence by people of faith.
It is perhaps necessary for us to second-guess Bonhoeffer’s decision to join in an effort to assassinate Hitler. Having done that, however, we must be honest enough to admit that none of us living on this side of the peace created by the sacrifice of many has any idea what we would do under the same circumstances -- or even what those circumstances might feel like.
This much is certain: Bonhoeffer’s faith was not a mere panacea against death -- some hedge against eternal fire, as evangelists today are wont to say.
His faith was a sword that gave him courage to engage the forces of darkness and death with the passion of one whose soul was bathed in the light of hope.
What a stark contrast to what passes for faith these days, where truth and its resources are bought and owned by the highest bidder -- the very thing Bonhoeffer feared the most.